Google's Glass thrills but chills

Last Updated: Mon, Apr 01, 2013 04:40 hrs
Google's doodles

It's hard to believe that Hollywood directors of pulpy epics such as Gladiator and Titanic could be considered prophets of their time. Yet, Scott's Blade Runner (1982), and Cameron's Terminator (1984), both heralded the dawn of the Cyborg decades ago, with information screens popping up inside the retinas of their half-man-half-robots. They must have inspired a ubiquitous new face trumpeting the age of the machine - that of Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, wearing the revolutionary device his company has just come out with, called 'Glass'.

With Glass, suddenly Google has become the hot new name in what is to be the rage of the future - wearable computing. With a slim headset and a tiny prism display that sits just above the eyeline, the device amazingly packs in a camera, battery, microphone, GPS, bluetooth and all sorts of other things. Reports suggest that the device uses bone induction that vibrates your skull to communicate the sound into your inner ear. Glass can browse the net, shoot video, take pictures, and broadcast what you're seeing to the world, all through simple voice commands, like 'OK Glass shoot video.'

This means that while driving around looking for an address, you can use a voice command to activate a GPS system-cum-map that guides you with pin-pointed accuracy in a screen above your eye; or, you could ask Glass to look for a good bar in the area you're motoring about and figure out how many of your friends are in or near it (also using a GPS tracker) so you can mooch some drinks off them; or, you can throw your three-year-old up in the air to peals of delight, record the whole thing and simultaneously broadcast it to his/her grandparents sitting in front of a screen a continent away.

But here's what you can also do which is what has critics in a tizzy: Record your neighbour taking a bath; tape someone at a restaurant or a night club having an embarrassing fight with his/her spouse; Record just about anyone and anything while walking down a street, entering a museum or coffee shop or cruising around a mall. This technology could be a lifesaver for many firms. Critics suggest that internet companies are reaching the finite limits of available data on the net, which they use to make money. Glass gives them a deluge of new data, much of it personalised and created daily, which is a goldmine for monetisation. Then, there are also serious concerns about free speech which 'Glass' could thwart, by capturing and posting what someone says on the net without consent.

Still, some ask if Glass deserves all this handwringing over privacy issues. After all, the activities listed above can also be undertaken with any decent smartphone today. Still, critics suggest that it's the ease of usage in Glass - with its simple voice commands, stable positioning and seamless integration into the internet and social media - that make it such a potentially lethal weapon for those who want to misuse it. And there's no way to tell if someone with the headset on is recording you or not, whereas a phone pointed in your direction can be a dead giveaway.

Google is very aware of concerns surrounding privacy, so, it will be interesting to see how it grapples with all of this. Earlier, the company faced a backlash when it launched Buzz, because it used Gmail users' private contact lists to architect a 'friends' network, then made these lists publicly available. This was quickly changed to make the privacy setting a default.

Sometimes, technology compels humans to codify new types of acceptable or frowned upon public behaviour - such as letting your phone ring loudly or talking on it during a movie screening. Similarly, many restaurants may ask patrons to remove their Glass before entering, as some have begun to already do so in the US. If you're on a date and you're looking up at the upper right hand corner obsessively for email alerts, you are bound to suffer the same fate as someone who can't seem to part with his BlackBerry keyboard.

Eventually, the utilitarian revolution that Glass promises may outweigh concerns. Consumer product companies may be willing to pay you and Glass to allow them to watch while you, for example, do your weekly shopping at the supermarket with the camera on. Also, the device's infrared, bluetooth, radio frequency IDs, and camera may transform Glass into a central brain, allowing it to do mundane things such as turning off your TV and activating your coffee machine with voice commands.

Perhaps, the time to really get concerned about Glass's capabilities is, if at some point in the future, it suddenly starts to talk back. In which case, we would be well advised to watch not Scott or Cameron, but Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to get a good sense of where the world is heading to if this happens.

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